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Comparing the Renaissance and Middle Ages

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From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, Europe underwent a great deal of changes, including attitudes towards learning, science and technology, art and literature, and the way humankind felt about themselves and towards their society. The Middle Ages were the time period between ancient and modern times in Western Europe. Before the Middle Ages, Western Europe was part of the Roman Empire. After the Middle Ages, Western Europe included the Holy Roman Empire, the kingdoms of England and France, and a number of smaller states. The history of the Middle Ages extends from the end of the Roman Empire, about the fifth century AD to the 1500’s. The Renaissance was a great cultural movement that began in Italy during the 1300’s. It spread to England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and other countries in the late 1400’s and ended about 1600. The word Renaissance refers to the act of being reborn. During the Renaissance, many European scholars and artists studied the learning and art of ancient Greece and Rome. They wanted to recapture the spirit of the Greek and Roman cultures in their own artistic, literary, and philosophic works.

The Renaissance overlapped the end of the Middle Ages. The leaders of the Renaissance rejected many of the attitudes and ideas of the Middle Ages. For example, European thinkers in the medieval times believed that people’s chief responsibility was to pray to God and concentrate on saving their souls. They thought that society was filled with evil temptations. Renaissance thinkers, on the other hand, emphasized people’s responsibilities and duties to the society in which they lived. They believed that society could civilize people rather than make them wicked.

Learning and the arts during the Middle Ages were devoted to glorifying God (theology) and strengthening the power of the church. Almost all the great ideas and artistic achievements reflected the influence of the church. Painters and sculptors tried to give their works a spiritual quality. They wanted viewers to concentrate on the deep religious meaning of their paintings and sculptures. They were not concerned with making their subjects appear natural or lifelike. Medieval scholars translated Greek and Arabic writing from ancient civilizations into Latin, and studied their meanings. More and more scholars became familiar with the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The scholars argued whether Aristotle’s teachings opposed those of the church. A field of thought called scholasticism grew out of their discussions and writings. However, during the Renaissance, another cultural break with tradition may be summed up with the word humanism. Classical texts were studied and valued on their own terms, no longer serving merely to embellish and justify Christian civilization.

Although the study of ancient literature, history, and moral philosophy sometimes degenerated into slavish imitation of the classics, it was meant to produce free and civilized human beings, people of taste and judgement, citizens rather than priests and monks. Renaissance painters and sculptors, like Renaissance writers, wanted to portray people and nature realistically. Architects of the Middle Ages designed huge cathedrals to emphasize the majesty and grandeur of God. Renaissance architects designed buildings on a smaller scale to make people aware of their own powers and dignity.

In medicine and anatomy, progress was made. Some of the most advanced Greek treatises on mathematics were translated in the 16th century, and advances made beyond the ancients included the solution of cubic equations and the innovative astronomy. In the field of technology, the invention of printing in the 15th century began to revolutionize the dissemination of knowledge. Printing increased the quantity of books, helped eliminate errors, furnished scholars’ identical texts with which to work, and turned intellectual endeavor into a collaborative rather than a solitary activity. The use of gunpowder transformed warfare between 1450 and 1550. Artillery proved devastatingly effective against the stone walls of castles and towns. The medieval army, led by cavalry and supported by bowmen, was gradually replaced by one made up of foot soldiers carrying portable firearms and masses of troops with pikes.

All of these changes from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance changed much of Europe. People were less concerned with religious thinking, and concentrated more on understanding people and the world. The scholars and artists emphasized the study of humanity. Scholars and artists rediscovered ancient works and gained inspiration from them. Architects began to design non-religious buildings rather than cathedrals. Painters and sculptors began to glorify people and nature in their works. More and more writers composed prose and poetry not in Latin, but in their native languages, including French and Italian. This increasing use of the vernacular opened a new literary age, and gradually brought learning and literature to the common people.

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